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The nation's elite private schools are regularly doing what would once have been unthinkable: bypassing qualified women for less qualified male students.
Salt Lake City's Westminster College is no exception.
So many more qualified women apply than men that admissions officers have to look at criteria other than grades and test scores to balance out the gender mix of the freshman class, said Joel Bauman, Westminster vice president for enrollment.
"It would be great to have the very best qualified students in a classroom, but instead you want the most diverse learning environment you can have with the widest array of students possible," Bauman said.
Colleges across the country are in a similar predicament.
Nationally, women make up about 60 percent of college enrollment, a trend that began in the late 1970s and has continued. Many worry about how the trend will affect the nation's work force because women trying to achieve work/life balance often stay in careers for shorter periods of time than men. In addition, many women still avoid careers in science and engineering, raising concerns that the United States' world standing will suffer as India and China increasingly dominate in those areas.
Westminster administrators recognize that threat; women tend to be drawn to nursing and education while men are attracted to sciences and business. That's one reason why Bauman strives for gender balance while also seeking the best applicants.
Women make up three-fifths of this year's freshman class, with 207 women and 139 men. With most of next year's applications already submitted, the gender split looks to be similar for next school year.
Kathy Stevens, co-author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life, thinks she can help explain the trend.
Elementary and secondary schools are failing boys, she argues, and by the time they reach high school, it's often too late for many of them to become college eligible.
"This is really just a consequence of what we're seeing in school. Boys' grades aren't as good, their test scores aren't as high, not as many boys graduate as girls, and more school is not what boys want," she said.
She says schools teach to girls' strengths but fail to accommodate the learning patterns of boys, who need constant and changing stimulation to stay engaged.
"We're not providing boys with the correct environment for them to use their skills," she said. "Our boys are so capable, and they want a challenge."
Many colleges realize that boys are capable, according to Sandy Baum, an economics professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She says college admissions officers try to predict the success of students, and boys' high school grades often don't reflect their intelligence.
She studied the admissions process at 13 liberal art colleges in 2005 and found that men were not given a preference unless the school's student body was more than 55 percent female.
"It is less common than what might actually be expected," Baum said. "However, this is a real, hard problem, and it shouldn't be overlooked."
When controlled for grades and standardized test scores, men and women had equal chances of getting into a college, she said. However, it's the "intangible factors" that tend to make the difference.
"Eighteen-year-old women have higher grades, but not SAT scores. They are better citizens and all around harder workers than men," she said. "In that regard, colleges face a problem because men haven't grown up."
Katherine Bark, a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at Salt Lake City's West High School, applied to 12 colleges, ranging from the University of California schools to Vasser to the American University of Rome. So far, she has received seven acceptances and one rejection. She has a 3.7 GPA and scored 1830 out of 2400 on her SAT. She also volunteers with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, Salt Lake City Peer Court and served as the head of the yearbook staff and as debate captain. She is looking at going into political science and potentially law school, but she won't select a college until she hears from all of them.
She expected to be accepted by many colleges and sees women's growing dominance in colleges as a sign of progress.
"It proves that societal changes are occurring. I think women still have to work harder than males do, but I'm glad to see so many women are applying for college," she said.
While Westminster's Bauman is also excited to see women in higher education, he still worries about the effect of a majority on campus.
"No one ever wants to have a predominant group on campus because if you have too many of any type of student, you have to wonder if others will feel welcome," Bauman said.
Students who want to differentiate themselves from other college applicants have several ways to do so without having a perfect grade point average or college testing scores.
-- Service: Many colleges, such as Westminster College, offer scholarships based solely on civic service, said Joel Bauman, Westminster's vice president for admissions. High school students should either participate in several different organizations or focus a significant amount of time and energy on a few.
-- Extracurricular activities: Being involved in band, newspaper, debate, yearbook and student clubs can increase chances of being accepted to a college, Bauman said.
-- Sports: Athletics are a good way for students who aren't top scholars to get into schools. Students still need to be academically qualified for admission, but dedication to a sport can help, he said.
-- Writing samples: When colleges require an essay or personal statement, students should put forth their best effort, said Tom Gourley, director of admissions at Brigham Young University. Applicants should have several people proofread their essays, checking for both content and grammar. They also should talk to counselors and teachers about what makes a good personal statement.